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Change, change, change, and change some more

Change, change, change, and change some more

Religion News Service (RNS) has an article suggesting that we should look beyond the recent Pew report’s (see our previous story here) report on the decline of religious affiliation to see that the real story is the decline of religious influence in American society.

Some will argue that this decline describes the wrong definition of religion. Religion, they say, is about a personal connection to God, and that kind of religion — or spirituality — remains strong. And it is true many Americans still have experiences they interpret as religious.

But religion can also be thought of as a set of group practices, beliefs, ethics, texts, rituals and shared values. It is an institution comprising myriad smaller organizations. And institutional religion is ceding its hold on many individuals, especially educated elites, while playing an ever-less-important public role.

Though there is anecdotal evidence that people haven’t wholly abandoned personal religious beliefs, it is clear that those personal beliefs are not rooted in any kind of communal or institutional expression.  And the RNS analysis suggests that churches such as the Episcopal Church will struggle especially in this new climate since our predominant progressive stances are aligned with the larger forces of secularization which are driving the decline in religious participation and influence

Well, maybe, maybe not.  But it is true that the Episcopal Church, like nearly all denominations in the US has lost absolute numbers of members and has seen significant decline in our relative standing within the population. Prominent Episcopal blogger, Susan Brown Snook, in a recent post outlined the kind of decline the Episcopal Church has seen;

From 1965 to 2012, the US population increased by a whopping 62%, while the numerical membership of TECdecreased by 39%. (TEC figures provided by Kirk Hadaway, TEC Director of Research; US figures found here.) The decline is bad enough in sheer numbers, but as a percentage of the population, our decline is staggering. TEC fell from 1.6% to a minuscule 0.6%, a 63% decline, over the same period.

Aside from rising secularization, Andy Doyle, Bishop of Texas, writes of trends within the church that have hindered adaptation to new realities; the powers of inertia that have blocked efforts at change.  Arising from an understanding that most people suffer from “observation bias;” that is that we are deluded by the lens of personal experience that shapes our understanding of the world, he offers five examples that are at the root of our institutional stuck-ness.

70% of all change efforts fall short because those who are actually in charge of the change don’t change but vote or act as the church has always occurred to them. 70% fall short despite our good intentions, sophisticated systems, we have put a great group of people in the room, we have a solid management plan, and good leaders who came up with TREC report (I am biased of course having been a member of the committee).

The reason is that what occurs to the vast numbers of deputies may be one of the following: a) all structure proposals fail b) I don’t think our system is broken c) to change will remove power from me d) I like how things work e) our predecessors chose this system for a reason. Regardless of context, potential, crisis, problems, expressed concern about the continued loss of membership and money, or any other reason these 5 different ways in which the church occurs to the people will rule the day.


But Susan B. Snook offers another statistic in that same post which should be a sign of hope and a catalyst for action; that new churches tend to grow and to grow faster than established churches.

In a publication on the Episcopal Church’s website, Hadaway discusses factors associated with church growth, and concluded that newer churches are more likely to be growing churches: 54% of churches founded between 1996-2009 were growing, vs. 17% of those founded before 1900.

If we want to reach many new people with the gospel through our beautiful Episcopal Church, one huge and necessary strategy is to take some risks and plant some churches.

It is also likely that new churches are going to be the places where the kind of re-invention and re-imagination that works in the new landscape will be discovered and perfected.  A history of the church shows that the predominant paradigm of change is that adaptation rarely comes form the center of authority but that successful adapters, by nature of their success come to power, overthrowing the existing model.

In order to encourage and support this kind of innovation, it is likely that some significant changes in governance structures will need to be undertaken.  But we need to be aware of the potential to take away the voice of the wider church, especially the laity, and not to “streamline” out the very innovators we need in favor of centralized and narrowed power.


posted by Jon White



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Canon Kale Francis King, Tssf

Are we where someone of significance ages ago responded to a comment that Christianity has failed with something like “Rubbish. It hasn’t even been tried!”
I am SO aware that the good folks in my congregation (I’m in the back pew) are truly Episcopalians by name only, not at all understanding Church history, no clue about Holy Scripture, nor about the teaching of the Church, and the Prayer Book is only “known” by the least of pages used on a Sunday. Maybe we are unusual but I’m guessing not.
Therefore, of what real significance is all the fuss and feathers about changing the structure at the top of ECUSA?
Just where is the grassroots church in all of this?

Philip B. Spivey

Canon Kale: You make eminent sense. Organizations and institutions in crises delude themselves into thinking that rearranging the leadership structures is the solution. Unfortunately, that’s like rearranging the furniture in your living room for a happier home or, more to the point, rearranging the the deck chairs on the Titanic.

I believe Christianity at its best is a verb, not a noun. As we have built enclaves and affinity groups over the centuries, I wonder if we’re missing something. The early Church, before ascending hierarchies, grew by leaps and bounds. I believe these Christian communities grew because they relied on one another for the necessities of life, including spiritual nurture. As the Church matured, we looked less to each other for out needs and more our clergy and, frankly, more to church doctrine. I believe “Christianity”— in action— became more abstract.

As we came to rely less on another and more on the material and spiritual distractions “of the world”, we lost a lot of what previously bound us together as Christians. How do we recover these bonds? Darned if I know.

Cynthia Katsarelis

I keep seeing “we need to change, change, change…” But I am not seeing an inspirational vision to inspire or motivate me to do anything. My church is thriving, though I believe we would thrive even more if we set our hearts on justice issues.

What vision is being offered for us to work towards? Frankly, I don’t think the action is to be found in the hierarchy. As someone else mentioned, the action is at the grassroots level. Growth for growth’s sake doesn’t make a lot of sense. But spreading the Gospel of the Good News to all, but particularly the poor and oppressed, is an inspirational message. Maybe change means being aligned with that message.

Jeremy Bates

Bishop Doyle of Texas says on his blog, “I am only wanting to have a church governance structure that supports at the end of the day this amazing work at the grass roots level.”

Which raises the question, what about the current structure blocks that amazing work?

I am reminded of the politicians’ syllogism. “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore this must be done.”

Is the frustration simply with the bicameral nature of General Convention? I’ve got news for you, folks: It wasn’t meant to be efficient.

M.G. Yelram

The author appears to be dancing around the truth, perhaps finding it too hot to touch? Therefore, I must add my own testimony:
Long before the hip leadership of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) took upon themselves to redefine orthodox sexual mores, I departed the ELCA , the church body that had baptized, confirmed and frankly imparted me with a catholic [small c] understanding of the Christian faith. Since the swinging 60s the once Christ-centered ELCA marketed itself as a prophetic sounding board for the leftist policies of the Democrat Party. Nuclear disarmaments & freezes, women’s “reproductive health” issues, racial & ethnic quotas, race card-mania, a zealous LGBT advocacy, open borders, redistribution of wealth —-You name it and they were out there painting a pious veneer onto some very thorny secular movements. Jesus morphed into some sort of barefoot Marxist hawking “social justice”. But the membership of Liberal Protestant bodies is in a stampede—right out the door. Bad karma perhaps?

JC Fisher

MGY, I think you forgot to stick on a “…and get off my lawn!” at the end there. ;-p~~~

But seriously, God’s in God’s Heaven, I think TEC is doing a *comparatively good* job of living the Gospel, and things will work themselves out. Numbers, demographics? In God’s hands, not ours.

Tom Downs

M.G. you sound just like Mr. Augustinian who commented today on a story over at Religion News Service. Only over there you were an expert on all things Roman Catholic, but your message and phrasing were the same as here. From Jon (below) we learn that the denomination you claimed to be raised in didn’t even exist when you were a little tyke. I wonder if you aren’t really an operative for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a right wing group whose declared purpose is to destabilize denominations you don’t find “right thinking” enough. Don’t bother answering; I don’t think we could trust what you had to say.

Jeremy Bates

Could someone please explain why governance structure has anything to do with membership decline?

Why would centralizing more power in a clerics or in executive officers enable TEC to grow?

I just don’t see any causal connection.

Rather, it’s as though those in power want more, and they are using declining numbers as an excuse to get it.

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